The bad news is all there on Page 11, clear as can be for NFL players to read. It's the most depressing page of the most depressing ruling on the most depressing day of their two-month labor dispute with the league.
The United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't just grant NFL owners a stay, which keeps the lockout going. It all but assured that its next ruling in June would be even more crushing for the players, who had gotten their hopes up after Judge Susan Nelson's initial decision last month.
Suddenly it's well-past time for the players to consider how far they are willing to take this battle.
Labor disputes really get painful when you start fighting for what's right, not what's best. In this case, are players really willing to accept missed weeks of the season – and thus missed checks in the bank – in an effort to attempt a long-shot war of financial attrition against a pack of billionaires?
That's where this appears to be headed, at least after the players’ once-promising legal strategy was delivered a crushing counter attack.
Or just turn to Page 11, where they can consider this sledgehammer to last month's carefully worded, pro-player decision by Judge Nelson:
"Our present view is this interpretation of the [Clayton] Act is unlikely to prevail."
Or one paragraph later when the appeals court questioned the validity of Nelson making a ruling at all.
"We have serious doubts that the district court had jurisdiction to enjoin the League's lockout, and accordingly conclude that the League has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits."
There is more there and on other pages, such as additional views on the Clayton Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act and a whole bunch of other legalese that fans generally don't care about.
After Monday's ruling, it increasingly appears that decision will rest with the players, who without the legal system on their side may be forced to bend.
At some point these things become less and less about whose right and more and more about who's got the might. Absence legal pressure, the owners have the chips on the table to lean on the players until their proposal looks better and better.
Momentum in this lockout has obviously bounced back and forth – just last month it was the NFL Players Association that was celebrating. No one knows for sure what the Eighth Circuit will do, although the tea leaves are pretty easy to read. The same judges that ruled Monday will run in full on June 3.
One side was always going to have a lot of power then and right now it looks like it'll be the owners.
Previous analysis was that the Eighth Circuit might struggle to find merit in overturning Judge Nelson's pro-player decision. Well, that was all wrong. If this is a precursor to what's coming then the players are in a lot of trouble. They can appeal all the way to the Supreme Court eventually, but that's a long-term strategy with little guarantee of success.
"It is now time to devote all of our energy to reaching a comprehensive agreement that will improve the game for the benefit of current and retired players, teams, and, most importantly, the fans," the NFL wrote in a statement. "… The league and players, without further delay, should control their own destiny and decide the future of the NFL together through negotiation."
The NFLPA offered a terse response, which is always a sign of a bad break: "The NFL's request for a stay of the lockout that was granted [Monday] means no football."
It'd be nice if the owners use this freshly won advantage to craft a reasonable offer, allowing a face-saving measure for the other side. It'd also be unlikely. The owners' plan has always been to bleed the players financially and wait for them to crack. If this comes down to a battle of resources the owners are going to win. There's never been any doubt of that.
Emotions run high in all labor disputes and the players have plenty reason to be angry. It's the owners that locked them out. It's the owners that are demanding the players give hundreds of thousands dollars back on the most recent collective bargaining deal. It's the owners that have shuttered a league that was soaring in popularity.
It's the kind of stuff that causes people to dig in.
Once the anger subsides, the questions need to be asked. How deep do they want to dig? When it's over will it be worth lost wages? Are they going to concede eventually anyway?
The players needed legal assistance here. They decertified their union to push this plan. They put a lot into a well-presented argument. Now, unless the appellate judges have a major change of heart, it looks like a lost cause.
The road map for how this is going to play out is becoming obvious. The players can push on anyway and take it to the end. Or they can cut to the chase and try to find a deal.
For the rank-and-file, labor disputes shouldn't always be seen as something that is won or lost. Settled and forgotten is often a smarter route.
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